When deer come calling
As humans have encroached on deer territory, the lithe creatures have become backyard nuisances. You can fight 'em or coexist by growing less-appetizing natives.

By Lili Singer, Special to The Times

We bond easily with deer. They are shy and beautiful, untamed yet docile. Deer are graceful denizens of the Western wilderness into which we carve our cities. 

Yet few creatures can do more damage to a well-tended landscape. It's no surprise, then, that gardeners who discover Bambi in the backyard are usually less than charmed. 

Most of the year, foothills neighbors compare notes about what the deer are eating this week. By winter, though, when wild food is diminished, hungry deer eat almost any plant they can reach, and otherwise gentle people start trading recipes for venison. 

They've tried to discourage them. Pitched noisy fits. Sprayed the plants with putrid potions. Festooned the garden with bars of soap and bags of human hair. Called them hurtful names such as "pigs on stilts" and "rats in high heels." The deer invariably run for cover, but they always return. 

After all, it is their neighborhood and, to browsing deer, a cultivated garden offers nothing less than haute cuisine.

Deer evolved on grasslands way back in the Miocene epoch, developing digestive systems able to break down tough plant material. Their hypersensitive hearing and tiptoe posture ensure quick escape from predators, and their long legs are adapted for speed. 

According to Jim Dines, mammalogy collections manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, we share our flora with mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus. Large, long-eared and lissome, it's the region's only native deer species. 

The problem, of course, is ours. We humans have altered the deer's natural range, encroached on their habitat. 

Still, Sharon and Jerry Levander are frustrated. They want to be good neighbors, but the deer on their unfenced Glendale hilltop mutilated the roses, decapitated the agapanthus and have started on the azaleas. The Levanders have heard about gadgets, repellents and deer-resistant plants, and they wonder if anything really works. 

"There's always something new," says John Hadidian, director of the Humane Society of the United States' urban wildlife programs. "This is a big, big issue all over the country." 

Ultimately, there's no winning this battle, and a combination of strategies is the only way to go: Avoid plants that deer favor, repel and deter them, exclude them and learn to love them. 

It's logical to use plants that deer don't like. Unfortunately, you can count those plants on the fingers of one hand. Veterans chuckle at the phrase "deer-proof plants." There's no such thing. But there are guidelines.

Deer generally spurn thorny and highly aromatic plants and those with leathery, prickly or furry leaves. Succulent plants and grasses are usually safe. Spurges are shunned for their milky sap. Daffodils and other narcissus are left alone. (Oddly, no animals eat them.) 

The optimal plant palette? "Go native," Hadidian says. "In other words, nothing more and nothing less than what was always available to them. Native plants evolved along with the deer, developing their own defenses [alkaloids and certain physical characteristics] that keep deer away."

Sages and sagebrushes, California's most pungent plants, are rarely eaten. Well-armed currants and bristly barberries are approached with reserve. Our buckeye is toxic; our bay tree too spicy.

Furthermore, natives from the immediate area make the absolute best choices. Grow them with minimal water, because deer relish juicy new growth and tender stems and leaves.

"The more you water, the more delicious you make the plant," says landscape designer Stephanie Wilson Blanc, whose mostly native Pacific Palisades garden abuts Temescal Canyon. "Grown dry, the leaves of California natives develop a hard, less-appetizing texture." 

This holds true for plants from other Mediterranean climates, where summers are also warm and dry. 

Helpful lists of deer-resistant plants offer no guarantees, especially when wild food is scarce. Or when deer develop a taste for something different and delicious, which happens regularly. Usually just after planting. 

Before you plant, prepare a second strategy: Repel and deter to stop the feeding before it starts. If that fails, make the plants taste so yucky that, once they sample them, the deer move on. 

Expect an outlay of cash and an ongoing battle. Just when you think you've found the cure, the deer adapt and it's time to switch. You'll need an arsenal, used repeatedly and in rotation. 

Some repellents discourage by odor, some by taste. Others play on the fear factor. 

Strongly scented bars of soap, bags of mothballs, sachets of citrus oil and plastic dispensers of concentrated garlic can all be suspended from plants. Hey, aesthetics are not the goal here.

Want malodorous? Putrescent egg solids are at the core of most commercial sprays, granules, soil drenches and bulb and root dips. Several are also spiked with garlic. Many double their defenses (and their bodacious claims) with hot pepper or mustard, compounds that burn the tongues of dining deer. One brand contains an extremely bitter compound, the same nasty stuff used to deter nail-biting children. 

Certain substances create the illusion of predator presence. Pouches of human hair are an old idea. (Barbers and beauticians are happy to oblige.) One concoction intimidates with blood meal (derived from "porcine and bovine" sources). Predator urine (primarily coyote, bobcat and mountain lion) is another, but there's concern about it.

"What looks like a nice 'organic' product may in fact be part of a very questionable and inhumane set of practices," Hadidian says. "As you can imagine, these animals do not volunteer this product, and we have reason to believe it comes almost entirely from animals being farmed for their fur." 

Word has it that human urine is equally effective. Discretion and observance of local ordinances are in order. The price is right, and it's certainly available. 

If you're looking for big-cat byproducts, which are reputed to spook deer, don't call the zoo. Mike Dee, general curator at the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens, gets requests for lion feces. For various reasons, he cannot share. "Besides," Dee says, "it attracts flies and smells quite a bit."

Because deer are naturally wary and skittish, scare devices can be effective. Things that move and shimmer (holographic windsocks, reflective tape, homemade ghost effigies) are temporarily alarming. Motion-activated gizmos emit a high-pitched whistle, inaudible to people and pets. Scarecrow sprinklers with infrared sensors are getting good reviews. 

Ditto for new battery-powered bait-then-jolt posts that teach area avoidance. They're topped with a vessel of tempting lure (in natural acorn and sweet apple flavors) that draw in deer for a mild electrical surprise. 

Alas, all goodies and gadgets must be tried and tried again. Deer are smart creatures with ravenous appetites. Their business is to survive, and only one thing will almost always keep them away from your plants: exclusion. 

At Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge, the deer situation isn't just big, it's huge. "Most of our deer were born on the property," says Patrick Larkin, Descanso Gardens' new chief executive. "They don't know they don't belong, and they don't know how to get out." Resident deer have stripped the meticulously espaliered crab apples and pruned gardenias into perfect, albeit flowerless, spheres.

The garden staff shrouds all new transplants in closed wire cages. Larkin prefers hog wire because it rusts in time and seems to disappear. A tall and very sturdy fence surrounds Descanso's 8-acre International Rosarium. 

The bottom line is that if you want to grow deer candy — roses, fruit trees, vegetables, amply watered ornamentals — you must build a fence. A high and sturdy fence, at least 8 feet tall, anchored deeply, with no gaps at ground level. Limber as yogis, deer can squeeze under fences and gates. 

Deer do have an issue with depth perception and are easily boggled. If they can't tell what they're leaping into, they'll go elsewhere. 

Novel fences feature uneven horizontal spacing, wider at top than bottom. Fences as low as 4 feet, leaning outward at a 45- to 60-degree angle (instead of straight up and down), are also confusing. The deer will approach but can't figure out how to jump over safely. 

Electric fences zap on contact via a single charged wire. Where legal and appropriate, baited and solar-powered models are available.

In the end, a large measure of acceptance is fundamental. When you live and garden at the edge of the city, where wild creatures still roam, it's important to remember why you moved there. 

Designer Wilson Blanc has worked it out. "We get one-third, and they get two-thirds." She fenced off the land closest to the house and grows vulnerable plants within. Outside the barrier, she puts out salt licks, provides water and adds natives familiar to the resident deer family. "I love living with the animals and am saddened by articles on how to keep them away." 

Jessica Reid has decided not to waste money on crazy contraptions. Deer visit her Los Feliz cul-de-sac daily. "They just hang out. I don't discourage them because they're so nice to look at." 

Reid avoids plants she's learned they love and opts for fewer flowering ones. On the back slope, more agaves and rosemary. In the front garden, a Zen-like space with stones, papyrus and several types of bamboo. 

Like many urban gardeners who choose to coexist with deer, she's learning to love them more than roses. 

How to make a deer say 'yuck'

There's no such thing as a deer-proof plant, but some are less palatable than others. A few tips to keep your backyard from being a buffet. 

Recognizing damage: Most noshing occurs at deer-head height (3 to 4 feet), but deer will stand upright to reach mouth-watering morsels. They nip off blossoms, nibble on juicy twigs and stems and remove mouth-wide sections from large leaves. Because deer lack upper incisors, severed plant edges are tattered and shredded rather than clean-cut. 

Plants that deer usually eat last: Deer spurn thorny and highly aromatic plants, succulents, grasses and plants with prickly, leathery or furry leaves. When pickings are thin, though, no plant is safe.

You'll find lists of deer-resistant plants in Sunset's Western Garden Book (2001 edition) and online at ucce.ucdavis.edu/files/filelibrary/1808/1336.pdf  and ucce.ucdavis.edu/files/filelibrary/40/954.pdf . 

California natives to consider: Western redbud, coyote brush, buckwheat, barberry, sage, wild ginger, iris, yarrow and monkeyflower. 

Non-natives to try: podocarpus, pyracantha, rockrose, grevillea, nandina, clivia, rosemary, lavender, lamb's ears, aloe and amaryllis. 

For more information: Experience counts, and these folks have it: Las Pilitas Nursery, http://www.laspilitas.com  ; My Deer Garden, http://www.mydeergarden.com ; and the Humane Society of the United States, http://www.hsus.org  . 


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